Eyes on the mitigation prize

AI and the future of wildfire detection in Boulder County

Lakeridge Trail Fire. Courtesy Pano AI.

Boulder County has three extra pairs of eyes helping detect fire. 

The eyes, cameras built by Pano AI, use geo satellite data and field sensors to confirm fires and tip off responders, helping them verify 911 calls and react faster to emergencies.

On Oct. 20, the 20-acre Lakeridge Trail Fire was detected by the technology — the first fire it located since the partnership began in mid-September. Pano AI’s technology is meant to help communities mitigate and adapt to climate change, especially in fire-prone landscapes like Boulder County. 

Seth McKinney, fire management officer for the Boulder County Sheriff’s Office, says they want to update historical tactics with modern technology. 

“This is one of the first times we’re really trying to make an attempt to add more technology to wildland firefighting efforts,” he says.

There are three sites scattered across the county where the cameras are installed on existing radio towers with high vantage points. 

The cameras that caught the Lakeridge Trail Fire were located on Lee Hill and Mount Thorodin. Once detected, they pinpointed the fire’s location within 600 feet. McKinney guessed the cameras were about 6 and 12 miles away from the fire’s location. The third location is above Eldora Ski Area. 

The Lakeridge Trail Fire was a unique scenario, because it was started by someone working for a landscaping company who quickly called in the fire to authorities. But, Mckinney says the technology detected the smoke only a few minutes after the initial call. 

The technology uses learning AI and computer vision to continuously observe the landscape within a 15-mile radius. Each station has two cameras that stitch together high-quality pictures to create a large panoramic photo that updates every minute. Once it detects and verifies a fire, it sends out alerts and mobile notifications to responders.

McKinney says the technology is particularly valuable detecting smoke in remote areas of the county and wilderness areas, because it can notify authorities well before someone could reach cell service. In more populated areas, it helps filter the many fire-related 911 calls that are false alarms, along with detection. 

“Detection isn’t always our challenge,” says McKinney. “It’s that actual intelligence.”

The City of Boulder, Boulder County and Xcel Energy each footed the bill for the cameras — running at $25,000 per site.

The County’s trial run for the system is up at the end of February. McKinney says the County has “roughly” talked about expanding the number of cameras, including one at the Gunbarrel radio site in Niwot.

“Ideally, I can see another three, maybe even four cameras going up in the county.”  

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